52 Insurgents Killed in Pakistani Operation

A major Pakistani military offensive in the northwest has killed up to 700 militants in the past four days, and the operation will proceed until the last Taliban fighter in the area is ousted. Video by AP
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 11 -- Pakistani officials said security forces killed 52 Islamist fighters in the Swat Valley on Monday, as the country's prime minister told Parliament the army had to take on the Taliban forces in the northwest because "the very existence of the country was at stake."

Intense fighting continued in many areas of the Malakand region occupied by Taliban forces, and thousands of civilians continued to flee. The number of displaced people has swelled to 270,000 in newly built camps in peaceful areas of North-West Frontier Province.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told journalists here in the capital that the army operation will go on "until the last militant is flushed out of the area." He also appealed for more international assistance in the fight, saying, "We have the will, but we don't have the capacity" to defeat the violent Islamist forces.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, in a special address to Parliament, vowed that "the writ of the government will be established at all costs" and that "the government will force the militants to lay down arms." He said the Taliban was trying to destabilize the country and denied that it has a religious agenda.

The tough language from senior Pakistani officials was in sharp contrast to the government's position just a few weeks ago, when officials were promoting a peace accord with the Taliban and portraying its movement in the northwest as an effort to give poor, powerless Pakistanis a better justice system.

Even as public and political opinion coalesced around the ambitious army operation, several opposition parties spoke out against it Monday. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who visited several refugee camps, said the nation should rally to the support of the displaced, but other officials of his party complained that the government had not consulted them before launching the military offensive.

Leaders of the country's two major religious parties also protested the operation, saying the government was only fanning the flames of Islamist militancy and acting at the behest of the United States rather than in Pakistan's national interest.

But Gillani, in his second public address about Swat in the past week, said the government had no choice but to attack the insurgents because they had violated the peace accord, continuing to kill and abuse people despite government concessions. President Asif Ali Zardari has been traveling in the United States since last week.

"I assure the house the whole nation is united," Gillani told lawmakers. "All politicians must support the government at this critical juncture. It is not the time to do politics."

Gillani and military officials said more than 700 militants and 20 members of the armed forces had been killed in the past two weeks, during which thousands of troops backed by warplanes and helicopter gunships have attacked Swat and several surrounding districts occupied by an estimated 4,000 Taliban fighters.

The escalating conflict has frayed nerves throughout the volatile northwest and raised fears of widening terrorist violence. On Sunday, a suicide bomber detonated his car in a line of vehicles at a checkpoint outside the major northwestern city of Peshawar, killing eight civilians and two paramilitary personnel.

In response to appeals from the Pakistani government and the United Nations, the Obama administration Monday pledged $4.9 million in aid to civilians displaced by the fighting. Washington officials have strongly urged Pakistan to take harsher measures against the militants, and the rapidly growing exodus from the northwest is a direct result of those stepped-up actions.

U.N. officials said that more than 250,000 people have fled the Swat region in the past week, and that an additional 300,000 are preparing to flee. The army has lifted its regional curfew several times in the past three days to allow large groups of people to escape the fighting.

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